Doug McAdam is hard at work shedding new light on the meso-dynamics of contention. What are the specific social and psychological mechanisms that bring people into social movements; what factors and processes make mobilization more feasible when social grievances arise? Recently he has done work on the impact of Teach for America on its participants, and he and his graduate students are now examining a set of environmental episodes that might have created local NIMBY movements — but often didn’t.
McAdam’s most sustained contribution to the field of contention is his 1982 book on the dynamics of the struggle for racial equality, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. The book was reissued in 1999 with a substantive new introduction, and it has set the standard for sophisticated sociological study of a large, complex movement. McAdam collaborated with Sidney Tarrow and Chuck Tilly in articulating a new vision of how to approach the politics of contention in Dynamics of Contention. And he has co-authored or co-edited another half dozen books on social movements and popular mobilization. So McAdam has been one of the architects of the field of contentious politics. Most importantly, he and his collaborators have brought innovative new thinking to the definition of problems for social research.
So it is valuable to dig into some of McAdam’s thoughts and his sociological imagination as we think about how the sociology of the future might be shaped. I conducted an extensive interview with Doug earlier this month, and it opened up quite a few interesting topics. The full interview is posted on YouTube (link).
There are quite a few important turns to the conversation.
- Segment 1: Why is the study of contention a central topic within the social sciences?
- Segment 2: How can we approach contention without looking only at the successful cases? How about the moments where contention might have developed but did not? We can combine quantitative and qualitative methods — perhaps in an order that reverses the usual approach. Maybe we can use quantitative studies to get a general feel for a topic, and then turn to qualitative and case studies to discover the mechanisms.
- Segment 3: Another important theme: “We are voracious meaning-making creatures.” Human beings have a cognitive-emotional-representational ability to attempt to represent meanings and their own significance within the larger order. Rational choice theory has too narrow a conception of agency. Why did the Black community stay off the buses in Montgomery? Because people were strongly enmeshed in communities of meaning and commitment that framed the bus boycott in terms of meaning and identity.
- Segment 4: The psychology of mobilization is complex. It’s not just “rational incentives”. Organizers and leaders use the affinities and loyalties of the community to bring about collective action. For example, an interesting strategy by SNCC to “shame” church leaders into supporting activists. Movements happen very suddenly; this seems to reflect a process of “redefining” the situation for participants. Another interesting issue: what is the right level of analysis — micro, meso, or macro? Doug favors the “meso” level.
- Segment 5: More on the meso level: disaggregated social activity. McAdam argues that government actions are themselves often at the meso level. And he makes the point that Civil Rights reform was strongly influenced in the United States by the issues created internationally through the tensions and ideological conflicts of the Cold War. This explains why it was Truman rather than Roosevelt who endorsed the need for Civil Rights reform. You can’t explain the broad currents of the Civil Rights movement without understanding the international context that was influencing the Federal government. (This is an example of a macro-level effect on social movements.)
- Segment 6: Now to mechanisms and processes. There are no laws of civil wars. So we need to look downward into the unfolding of the episodes of contention. Comparative historical sociology is a very dynamic movement today. Your work isn’t quite as comparative as that of Tilly or McAdam. Doug indicates that he favors comparison; but he tends to choose cases that are broadly comparable with each other. Tilly often made comparisons at a much higher level of variation. Q: Would you have been comfortable framing your study of the American Civil Rights movement as a comparison with the Solidarity Movement in Poland? A: no. There is too broad a range of differences between the cases.
- Segment 7: McAdam offers some interesting observations about the relationship between general theory and the specific social phenomena under study. An important point here is a strong advocacy for eclectic, broad reading as one approaches a complex social phenomenon. We can’t say in advance where the important insights are going to come from — anthropology, political science, history, sociology, ….
- Segment 8: We can dig into the social features that make certain figures very successful in bringing a group of people into a readiness to engage together. Is social status a key factor? Is it that some people are particularly persuasive? Doug wants to break open the black box and get a lot better understanding of the meso-level processes and mechanisms through which mobilization occurs. A closing topic: what about protest and mobilization in Asia? Do you think these ideas about mobilization are relevant and illuminating in China or Thailand? Or has it developed in too specific a relationship to democratic societies? Does the current understanding of popular mobilization help us when we try to understand movements like the Redshirt movement in Thailand? Doug believes the framework is relevant outside the democratic West. The ideas need to be applied loosely and flexibly.
- Segment 9: So the theory is really a “sketch” of the space of mobilization, rather than a set of specific hypotheses about how mobilizations always work. And in that understanding — the field is very relevant to research on the Thailand movement.
(Note the strong connections between this discussion and a few of the earlier interviews — Tilly, Tarrow, and Zald in particular (link). My interview with Gloria House about her experience with SNCC in Lowndes County is very relevant as well (link).)
One Reply to “Doug McAdam on contentious politics and the social sciences”
This is a really useful interview; thanks!